Zone Rouge, the ‘Red Zone’ Still a No Go Area

An area as vast as Paris, entry prohibited for almost a hundred years, destined to remain untouched for many more centuries.

A place so utterly devastated in both geography and ecology, it resembles the barren landscape of Mars. While this might sound like a setting from a dystopian novel, it is, in fact, a reality in France. This is the Zone Rouge, or the Red Zone, France’s very own no-go area.

Before the outbreak of World War I, the landscape around Verdun was markedly different. “It was primarily farmland,” notes Christina Holstein, a British historian and author. “Verdun housed a large peacetime garrison, comprising about 66,000 men who needed to be fed, so the area was extensively farmed and wasn’t heavily forested.”

However, this pastoral landscape underwent a drastic transformation with the onset of war in 1914. By 1916, the area had become a significant military focal point, with both French and German forces stockpiling vast quantities of ammunition and deploying large, cannon-sized guns.

According to Holstein, the battle at Verdun marked the first of the major artillery battles of the war. “The shelling was relentless during this period,” she remarks. “Millions upon millions of artillery shells were launched, relentlessly bombarding the area.”


Origins and WWI

The origins of the Zone Rouge can be traced back to the extensive battles fought on French soil during World War I, notably the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme. These battles were characterized by relentless artillery shelling, which churned up the landscape and turned it into a muddy wasteland.

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The use of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and chlorine, added to the environmental devastation. As a result, large areas of the French countryside were left in ruins, with villages and forests completely obliterated.

This map illustrates four distinct zones based on the level of destruction: red denotes areas that were completely destroyed; yellow represents regions with significant yet confined damage; green indicates areas that suffered moderate damage; and blue signifies zones that remained unscathed.

The French government, after the war, faced the daunting task of rebuilding and rehabilitating its land and people. It quickly became apparent that certain areas were so severely affected that reconstruction was not feasible in the foreseeable future. These areas were collectively designated as the Zone Rouge.

Zone Rouge

Spanning approximately 1,200 square kilometers at its inception, the Zone Rouge covered significant portions of northeastern France, primarily concentrated in areas around Verdun, the Somme, and the Aisne.

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These regions bore witness to some of the most intense and destructive battles of the war, including the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme, which left behind a landscape scarred beyond recognition.

The physical devastation in the Zone Rouge was immense. The relentless artillery bombardments that characterized trench warfare had transformed once-fertile fields and tranquil forests into desolate wastelands.

Some of the deadly shells developed and used in the First World War lined up by women factory workers
Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated 1.45 billion shells were fired by the opposing armies, the majority along a relatively small area of the Western Front. Before each major attack there would be days of heavy shelling: in just one week in advance of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, 1,700,000 shells were fired.

The land was pockmarked with craters from shell explosions, trenches, and tunnels. Numerous villages and towns within this zone were completely obliterated, leaving behind ruins and rubble. In some cases, entire communities were wiped from the map, with no trace left of their existence.

Adding to the physical destruction was the unseen danger of unexploded ordnance. The ground was littered with a myriad of explosive devices – shells, grenades, and bullets – many of which failed to detonate and remained a lethal hazard. This hidden threat posed a significant challenge in post-war recovery efforts and continues to be a danger even today.

Zone Rouge Chemical Weapons

The environmental impact of the war in the Zone Rouge was equally catastrophic. The use of chemical weapons, such as mustard gas and chlorine gas, resulted in widespread contamination of the soil and water sources.

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The chemicals used in these weapons, combined with heavy metals from exploded munitions, seeped into the soil, causing long-term contamination. This toxic legacy rendered large swathes of agricultural land unusable and posed serious health risks to any form of life trying to reclaim these areas.

M1 Garand gun

Furthermore, the high concentration of human and animal casualties in this region meant that the soil was also mixed with biological matter. The sheer scale of the carnage made it impossible to recover and identify all the remains, leaving the ground as a somber reminder of the lives lost.

In summary, the extent and damage of the Zone Rouge were a direct consequence of the unprecedented scale and nature of World War I. The area became a symbol of the war’s capacity for destruction, not just in terms of human life and infrastructure but also in its lasting impact on the environment.

Zone Rouge Ground Zero

The Zone Rouge’s epicenter is the site of the Battle of Verdun, one of the largest and most devastating battles of World War I and indeed human history.

This prolonged conflict, which raged for 303 days, resulted in a staggering number of casualties, estimated to be between 700,000 to 1,250,000. The scale of loss was so immense that obtaining an exact count has been deemed virtually impossible.

Verdun taken in 1964. Image Credit: LIFE
Verdun taken in 1964. Image Credit: LIFE

Verdun was strategically chosen by the Germans to be a battle of attrition. Their aim was to inflict massive casualties, thereby crushing the French will to fight and compelling the British to negotiate peace. During the initial phase of the battle, the Germans fired over two million shells, a figure that ballooned to nearly 60 million shells fired by both sides by the time the battle concluded.

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This massive artillery barrage resulted in the complete obliteration of entire French villages, the transformation of lush forests into flaming ruins, and the radical alteration of the landscape, with even mountains, hills, and rivers being reshaped beyond recognition.

To visualize the impact of this artillery fire, one might imagine a simple target at a firing range being repeatedly hit with a shotgun.

The objective is not precision but saturation; the target is hit so frequently and intensely that it becomes utterly shredded and unrecognizable. This analogy, when scaled to miles of landscape, aptly describes the utter transformation and devastation witnessed at Verdun.

It is one of the nine French villages destroyed during the First World War and not rebuilt because they are classified in the red zone of the Meuse department
It is one of the nine French villages destroyed during the First World War and not rebuilt because they are classified in the red zone of the Meuse department

In the aftermath, several villages that existed before the Great War were completely wiped off the map, never to be rebuilt. The villages of Beaumont-en-Verdunois, Bezonvaux, Cumières-le-Mort-Homme, Fleury-devant-Douaumont, Haumont-près-Samogneux, and Louvemont-Côte-du-Poivre were all completely destroyed during the Battle of Verdun and never rebuilt, completely wiped off the map, now they are marked only by simple wooden placards.

Post-War Years

In the aftermath of World War I, the French government faced the monumental task of rehabilitating the Zone Rouge, an area profoundly scarred by four years of intense warfare. This region, comprising parts of northeastern France, had witnessed some of the war’s most brutal battles, leaving it littered with unexploded ordnance and contaminated by chemical warfare.

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Initially, the government’s primary focus was on clearing the vast amounts of unexploded munitions. Teams of ‘démineurs’ (deminers) were deployed in a hazardous and painstaking process that involved locating and safely defusing or detonating these remnants of war.

This work was perilous and slow, and despite continuous efforts, the danger from unexploded bombs and shells persists to this day, with new discoveries being made regularly.

Between Laon and Soissons, German railway troops wash their clothes beside 50 cm shells
Between Laon and Soissons, German railway troops wash their clothes beside 50 cm shells

Another significant challenge was the environmental damage. The Zone Rouge was heavily polluted with toxic substances from chemical weapons and munitions, rendering the soil toxic and unsuitable for agriculture.

Unfit for Human Habitation

Efforts were made to decontaminate the land, but the extent of pollution meant that complete rehabilitation was near impossible in many areas. Some parts of the Zone Rouge were so severely affected that they were deemed permanently unfit for human habitation or agricultural use.

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Despite these challenges, parts of the Zone Rouge have been successfully reclaimed over the years. Through concerted decontamination and recovery efforts, some areas have been made safe for limited human activity and agricultural use. However, the process has been slow and fraught with difficulties, with a significant portion of the Zone Rouge remaining barren and desolate.

Due to the intense bombardment that disrupted the landscape, a significant number of shells, possibly as many as one in four, did not detonate upon impact in the soft mud and ended up buried.

In recent years, these abandoned areas have become inadvertent nature reserves. Overgrown with vegetation and largely undisturbed by human activity, they have become refuges for wildlife, offering a unique if unintended, ecological benefit.The rehabilitation of the Zone Rouge remains an ongoing challenge for France.

Current State and Environmental Concerns

Despite significant efforts to rehabilitate parts of this region, large sections remain uninhabitable and closed to the public due to the lingering risks posed by unexploded ordnance and toxic contamination.

Today, the size of the Zone Rouge has been considerably reduced from its original extent, thanks to continuous decontamination efforts. However, the areas that remain part of the Zone Rouge are a stark reminder of the enduring legacy of war.

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In these regions, the soil is still laced with hazardous materials, including heavy metals like lead and arsenic, residues from munitions, and remnants of chemical weapons. This contamination not only poses a direct threat to human health but also impacts local ecosystems, affecting flora and fauna.

During the war, the town was destroyed and the land was made uninhabitable to such an extent that a decision was made not to rebuild it. The site of the commune is maintained as a testimony to war and is officially designated as a “village that died for France”.

One of the most significant ongoing challenges is the presence of unexploded ordnance. Despite decades of clearance efforts, a substantial amount of munitions remains buried in the ground. Periodic discoveries of these dangerous relics continue to remind us of the area’s volatile history.

Lingering Toxins

The task of clearing these munitions is intricate and dangerous, often leading to disruptions in local communities when ordnance is discovered in populated areas or construction sites.

Environmental studies have revealed that in some parts of the former Zone Rouge, the level of soil contamination still exceeds safe limits.

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The long-term ecological impacts of such contamination are a matter of ongoing research and concern. Efforts to restore the natural environment are complicated by these lingering toxins, making full ecological recovery a distant goal.

Interestingly, the absence of human activity in the most contaminated parts of the Zone Rouge has led to an unintended consequence: the creation of de facto nature reserves. These areas, left to rewild naturally, have become habitats for various wildlife species, some of which are thriving in these undisturbed spaces. This accidental rewilding presents a unique opportunity for ecological studies and conservation efforts.

Cultural and Historical Significance

The area serves as a poignant reminder of the horrors of World War I, encapsulating the immense human cost and the profound impact of modern warfare on both the landscape and society.

Historically, the Zone Rouge is a tangible representation of the unprecedented destruction wrought by the Great War.

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The obliterated villages, the pockmarked landscapes, and the remnants of trenches and fortifications are silent witnesses to the battles that once raged there. This scarred terrain has become a powerful symbol of the futility and devastation of war, offering a stark contrast to romanticized notions of military glory.

Culturally, the Zone Rouge holds a special place in French national consciousness. It is a place of mourning and remembrance, where the memory of the fallen is honored and preserved.

The extent of shelling and bombing during the war reached monumental proportions.

Numerous memorials and cemeteries have been established within and around the Zone Rouge, serving as solemn sites for reflection and commemoration. These memorials are not only significant to France but also to the many nations whose citizens fought and died on this battleground.

Zone Rouge Contributes

Moreover, the Zone Rouge has become an important subject in literature, art, and film, often depicted as a symbol of the enduring scars of war.

Writers and artists have drawn inspiration from its desolate landscapes, using it as a backdrop to explore themes of loss, memory, and the human cost of conflict. This artistic engagement with the Zone Rouge contributes to a broader understanding of the war’s impact on individuals and societies.

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In recent years, the Zone Rouge has also gained attention from environmentalists and ecologists. The area’s accidental rewilding has created unique habitats for wildlife, sparking interest in the study of ecological recovery in post-conflict landscapes. This aspect of the Zone Rouge offers insights into how nature can reclaim and thrive in areas devastated by human activity, providing valuable lessons for conservation and environmental rehabilitation.

Iron Harvest

The term “iron harvest” refers to the yearly collection of war relics like unexploded ordnance, barbed wire, shrapnel, bullets, and remnants of trench supports by farmers in Belgium and France. This occurs after they plow their fields, revealing remnants primarily from the First World War that still litter the former Western Front in abundance.

During the First World War, it’s estimated that about one tonne of explosives was launched for every square meter of land along the Western Front. Notably, around 25% of these shells failed to explode.

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In the Ypres Salient alone, about 300 million shells were fired between British and German forces, and a significant portion of these were duds, many of which remain unrecovered to this day. In 2019, DOVO, the Belgian armed forces’ demining unit, reportedly defused over 200 tons of such ammunition.

Upon impact during the war, unexploded weapons, including shells, bullets, and grenades, either buried themselves or were swiftly engulfed by the mud. Over time, these buried munitions are gradually brought to the surface due to construction activities, agricultural plowing, and natural soil movements.

The majority of the iron harvest is uncovered during the spring planting and autumn plowing seasons, particularly in the agriculturally rich regions of northern France and Flanders. Farmers typically gather these dangerous relics and place them at the edges of their fields or designated collection points, where they are later handled by the authorities.

Deaths of Approximately 630

Despite their age, unexploded munitions from past conflicts continue to pose a significant danger. The French Département du Déminage, responsible for mine clearance, recovers around 900 tons of unexploded ordnance each year.

Since 1946, the handling of these dangerous remnants has led to the deaths of approximately 630 French ordnance disposal workers. Recent incidents highlight the ongoing risk: as late as 1998, two individuals died near Vimy, France, while handling munitions, and in 2014, two Belgian construction workers were fatally injured by a century-old unexploded shell.

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The Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, DOVO, has also experienced substantial losses, with over 20 members killed in the process of disposing of World War I munitions since the unit’s establishment in 1919. In the Ypres region alone, since the end of World War I, unexploded munitions have caused 260 deaths and injured 535 people.

Additionally, shells containing poisonous gas, which still account for about five percent of the shells fired during the First World War, pose a unique threat. These shells can corrode over time, releasing toxic gas. Ordnance disposal experts have suffered burns from exposure to mustard gas released from split-open shells, indicating the lasting and hazardous nature of these war remnants.

Controlled Explosion

In Belgium, when farmers recover munitions and other wartime materials, they place them meticulously along the edges of their fields or in spaces around telegraph poles. These items are then routinely collected by the Belgian army for safe disposal.

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The controlled destruction of these hazardous materials takes place at a specialist center in Poelkapelle, a facility established after the practice of dumping shells in the ocean ceased in 1980.

Once the army retrieves these items, any chemical agents, especially gas, are incinerated at specialized facilities designed to handle such materials at high temperatures. Following this, the explosives are carefully detonated in controlled environments, ensuring safety and minimizing environmental impact.